Hope through Education

The task of trying to change a culture is daunting,
but those involved are not discouraged

Produced in Kajuki, Kenya November 2011. Veronica talks about her role in empowering and educating girls against FGM and the Alternative Rites of Passage programme, a highly successful alternative to FGM, which is now gaining momentum and bringing a change in culture within the Meru diocese in Kenya.

Female Genital Mutilation (female circumcision)
and the 'The Alternative Rites of Passage'

A major element of the rites of passage of young people in many tribes in Kenya is circumcision, administered when they reach the age of puberty. For young women, this procedure, of which the more appropriate description is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – is strewn with hazard and is now an illegal practice in Kenya.

By tradition – which goes back beyond memory – young women have been circumcised as a rite of passage, marking their progress from childhood to womanhood. It basically 'prepares' her, and establishes her worth on the marriage market. To prospective in-laws it makes her a fit and appropriate bride; to parents, the child now attracts a high dowry price – currently a substantial 49 goats and 10 cows in the Meru area. It is also meant to test a girl's courage to show how she endures pain. Uncircumcised girls beyond puberty have little value, and are generally ridiculed and ignored.

It is round about mid to late December that this ritual is carried out. It is administered by elderly women of the community, using crude, unsterilised instruments, in the secrecy of their small communities, at night. The methods are brutal: there are no painkillers, no hygiene, the same knife used on different girls. The risk of infection is high, as is passing on the HIV/AIDS virus. There are life-long physical and psychological effects. The young women are secluded in their house for up to six weeks after the ceremony, usually suffering great pain. Some die of infection – exact numbers are unknown – as deaths are not formally registered, or cause of death challenged.

For the past five years, a very successful annual programme, has been running to educate and persuade parents and young women against this practice. The programme culminates at the end of each year in an Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) residential gathering (''week of seclusion') at St Peter's, where young women from around the area are given talks, seminars and advice from a wide range of experts and professionals in this field, to resist this practice. Essentially, through the residential element of the seminar, they are taken out of circulation during the circumcision 'season'.

In 2010, 208 young women attended the ARP at St Peter's. The net result is a growing community of confident young women who have defied this practice and are beginning to make their positive impact and influence felt in the community at large, with (some) going on to secondary education, and also allowing their own choice of time and partner for marriage.

So far, about 500 girls will have passed through his Alternative Rites. In Fr Joe's words, 'A group of confident young women is building up to support and encourage each other. We attempt to persuade the community and parents of the benefits of education rather than circumcision – an educated young woman accrues much more intrinsic and practical value, and has the ability to give something of true worth back to the family, and community, on a long term basis. And of course, her health and dignity is secured'.

This programme has been something that St Peter's Life-Line has very much admired and in the past did not require any funding, we were able to give it voiced support and continued prayer support. However, funding for this programme ended in 2011. We feel that the ARP is a life changing, life giving programme for girls, bringing much Hope for the future. We simply could not let the programme not run this year, so have provided funds for 2011 so that it can bring Hope to those girls who would have been circumcised this year. We will continue to seek funds for future years so that it can bring much Hope and continue to change lives.

St Peter's Life-Line had given a grant for the 2011 programme to be able to train up key members of the community and for 200 girls to attend the week long seclusion of equipping and empowering. In fact, many more girls had wanted to attend and in the end a waiting list has been set up for next year. 230 girls in total graduated from the programme – the extra 30 girls were given a place on the programme as they were girls who were at risk of being cut this year.

Those involved in running the programme, do not do so without risk, they have been threatened ever since it started, but they stand firm, encouraged by seeing gradual progress, with parents and the authorities beginning to respond positively.

The task of trying to change a culture – and one aspect which is so deeply embedded – is daunting, but those involved are not discouraged, they put their trust in God, rejoice in the results, and persevere.